What situation is most likely to suck the “power” from your willpower?
Surprisingly, it’s none of the usual suspects. It’s not the football-field long buffet table at the all-you-can-eat place. It’s not the beckoning “SALE” signs at the mall. It’s not the special happy hour appetizers that are free with drinks at your favorite bar. It’s not end-of-day fatigue. It IS true that all these situations can tax your mental resources, but the biggest willpower drain appears to be something else.
What is it? The answer is: money troubles. The latest research strongly suggests that worries about money can erode your willpower and even lower your IQ no matter how smart you are. Why is this so? What can you do about it?
Let’s start with the reasons why lack of money is such a powerful drain on willpower.
Reason 1. Scarcity reduces willpower.
The effects of scarcity in general and of poverty in particular are described in a new book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir (summarized here and here).
Worrying about any scarce resource can use up the valuable brainspace that could otherwise be devoted to willpower. But worrying about money is the worst of all. Mentally debating about how you’ll juggle your bills, whether your utilities might be turned off, or whether you can really afford that expensive luxury item you just bought preoccupies the part of the brain that governs willpower. That makes planning for the future and making good decisions more difficult.
Reason 2: Money troubles reduce your brainpower.
To make matters worse, money worries also reduce your problem-solving ability. Unbelievably, money worries were correlated with a drop in IQ by as much as 9-14 points, depending on the situation studied. With less decision-making savvy, you may find yourself taking out a high-interest loan from a loan shark company or using the rent money to fix your car. Life becomes one personal emergency after another.
We often blame the poor for having caused their own problems through lack of willpower. But if you read the research above, you’ll see that, in general, it wasn’t lack of willpower that caused money troubles; it was money troubles that caused lack of willpower.
Reason 3: Constant decision-making depletes willpower.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that “decision fatigue”—having to make one decision after another—depletes willpower. Decision fatigue explains why we have less willpower at the end of the day. And when money is scarce, every financial decision is harder. Even an ordinary trip to the supermarket becomes a series of agonizing decisions.
Reason 4: Stress depletes willpower.
All kinds of stress can deplete willpower, but money troubles may be the king of stresses. Money troubles can lead to family quarrels and impact mental health. The more mental stress we face, the less energy can be devoted to self control.
What You Can Do About Your Money Troubles
Are financial problems draining your energy and willpower? If so, forget the diet and make a change in your money life a top priority.
If YOU are the one with money troubles, consider a New Year’s resolution that includes a specific and clear plan about how to make your financial life less stressful. For example, if credit card debt is the problem, here’s Suze Orman’s 10-step plan for paying it off: Click here
and scroll down to “Paying Off Debt.” Or you could make a plan that will help you save more, earn more, or spend less.
If a LOVED ONE has money troubles and you don’t, this article, "The Most Wanted Stocking Stuffer--Cash," by Tara Siegel Bernard offers ways to help. (If you do have money troubles, remember the adage about putting on your own oxygen mask first.) Consider how to boost someone's bank balance without enabling spendthrift behavior.
So, if your financial life is broken, fix it! You’ll find you have more willpower and smarts. Think about that when you're trying to decide if you really need yet another pair of shoes.
Mark Twain said, “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” That statement may be greatly exaggerated, but it does appear that the lack of money is one reason for poor willpower.
© Meg Selig
For humane ideas to help people in poverty, see the end of this article by Tina Rosenberg. If you enjoyed discovering how money woes undermine willpower, you might enjoy learning 19 more reasons why willpower can fail, in David DiSalvo’s blog here. In “Does This Economy Make My Butt Look Fat?” Kelly McGonigal explores the connection between economic inequality and obesity.
For all your willpower and New Year's resolution needs, consider my book: Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009).
Decision fatigue. Baumeister, R. and Tierney, J. Willpower (Penguin, 2011), p. 98 ff.
Rosenberg, Tina, "Escaping the Cycle of Scarcity."
Mullainathan, S. "The Mental Strain of Making Do With Less."
For more on willpower, habit changes, and peace of mind, please follow me on Twitter or Facebook.